FAQ

[Translate to English:] FAQ

Restitution describes the deaccessioning of cultural or religious objects from their current museal contexts. By means of collaboration between communities and institutions, these objects can return to those for whom they were or are meaningful, or those who used them before they were made part of museum collections. The return of cultural heritage is both material and immaterial, simply returning objects is not the key goal: no object is without context.

It is the responsibility of the museum as a cultural institution to retrace the context of its collections. This research is called “provenance research.”

Provenance research aims to unveil everything known about an object. In Saxony, museums work with the databank Daphne to organise and collect research to the collections.

Restitutions are as much material as immaterial; objects are returned alongside provenance research results. Ultimately, the aim of provenance research is to gather information and offer transparency on cultural objects and heritage.

All objects and ancestors in the SES (State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony) are subject to provenance research.

In the nineteenth century, scientists across Europe sought evidence to prove new theories of evolution concerning the origin of human beings, including a theory of a hierarchy of races. This popular theory among scientists was that human beings could be categorised into races based on their physical features, among them for instance the form of skeletons and skulls. For this reason, scientists compared skeletons and skulls of people from different parts of the world. Partly also colonial officers, outgoing missions, military expeditions, or average travelers were commissioned to collect these.

All the while, colonised communities struggled with explorers and settlers for their existence. Local politics, cultural practices, languages, and familial relationships were destroyed from the wave of new diseases, violence, and fight for resources. Funeral rituals were disrupted, and graves were unearthed and robbed. In other cases, local people who died in enslavement were not buried, but rather, were taken directly to Europe to be displayed, their bones being immediately removed from their bodies.

Once the remains were in Europe, they entered a growing market where museums and scientific institutions could expand their collections of human ‘’samples.’’ Museums such as the Zoological Museum in Dresden, today, the Museum for Ethnology in Dresden, and the Grassi Museum for Ethnology had an anthropology department with skeletal examples. The Museum for Zoology in Dresden also had research departments in the field of anthropology, and in many cases, accepted collections of bones as gifts or donations, putting some on display.

This practice went on for roughly a century. During the Second World War, the collections in Dresden where brought into storage to save them from the destruction of war. The collections in Leipzig did not survive the bombings. In Dresden, however, many remains that have been sitting in storage since the mid twentieth century are still present.

Today, in the twenty-first century, many museum and institution circles are well aware of the violent history that disturbed the dead and brought them into exhibition halls. The prevailing discussion centers on next steps in solving the problem of human remains in museums.

One solution to begin to heal the wounds of colonisation is via repatriation.


Although repatriation and restitution describes the deaccessioning of collections, much is to be gained by letting go. Via provenance research toward claims of cultural patrimony, historical contexts important to both ethnographic collections and communities of implication are established. Gifts are exchanged, which continue to tell the stories of the artefact, object, photograph, or ancestor. Shared histories, bound by objects or ancestors, are reconstructed. Decolonising projects encompass a multitude of exchanges, which leave museums not empty, but more perhaps more enriched than before.

Decolonisation describes the social movement to identify and undo colonial power structures. The ultimate goal of this movement is towards community self-determination, especially among previously colonised communities.

German colonial activities were not limited to the boundaries its colonial empire: German institutions were involved in international markets that spanned world colonial networks, of which there is evidence of brutality and violence. For this reason, the museum holds objects of multiple countries and colonial histories.

The colonial period cannot be undone. With historical knowledge and the privelage of hindsight, we can ask ourselves: how do we move forward?

To become more involved in the decolonise movement, you can attend a GRASSI TALKS lecture, get in touch with your local post colonial organisation, or find your university’s post-colonial chapter.

Repatriations and restitutions follow a claim inquiry process. When provenance research is conclusive and results in a repatriation or restitution, a ceremony following cultural protocol occurs, lead by both international and German leadership. The State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony (SES) belong to the State Art Collections of Dresden (SKD). The Minister for Culture of Saxony must approve all repatriation and restitution claims.

For information on the process of a collection inquiry, click here.

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